As a child, Tim Barker spent summers on his grandparents' farm in Kentucky.
"We'd be up around 4 a.m. to pick tomatoes," he says. "And then we'd come in for breakfast and eat tomatoes. And then go out and sell tomatoes. And then for lunch we would eat tomatoes.
"For a long time I didn't eat tomatoes."
- Michael Donahue
- Tim Barker
As chef/owner of Edge Alley, Barker, 38, now includes tomatoes in his popular shrimp and grits. "I [fell] in love with tomatoes. I turned into a tomato snob."
Barker, who was born in Martin, Tennessee, got his first restaurant job at 13 working at a Shoney's. He rose from washing dishes to flipping burgers and frying steaks.
Barker studied artistic photography at Murray State University. "My plan was to be a successful photographer."
But, he says, "I was in school for photography and needed a job."
He went to work at an upscale restaurant in Murray. "That was the restaurant where I realized this could be more than just a job."
Instead of just flipping a steak, Barker started "to care about whether the thing is overcooked or not. It stops being just a job and you have to worry about the presentation. The quality. There's more to it than just food."
Barker, who briefly went to culinary school, eventually moved to Memphis, where he worked under chef/owner José Gutierrez at the old Encore restaurant at The Peabody and at the Beauty Shop working with chef/owner Karen Carrier.
Deciding he wanted to open a restaurant consulting business, Barker now owns Table and Bar Consulting Group. "We do restaurant concept and design for ground-up projects. And then we can also help people reorganize and repair their existing operation."
He wasn't thinking about opening a restaurant at 600 Monroe when the developer asked him what he thought he should do with the empty space. "I outlined this concept for some retail and art space, a restaurant, and a coffee roastery."
A year and a half later, Barker opened Edge Alley, which serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and, Saturday and Sunday, brunch. The restaurant space has 60 seats. A photography gallery soon will fill another space.
Owning his own restaurant was his longtime fantasy, but, Barker says, "I've always thought that I would end up with a fine dining restaurant. A few years ago, I realized that's not the way the world is going.
"What we do here is fun. There has to be a certain amount of whimsy."
Their food concept has always been "fresh, light, as few ingredients as possible. No heavy sauces. Everything is meant to be refreshing."
And, Barker says, "If we can't make it, we prefer not to serve it. So, at first everything was served on a biscuit because that was the bread we were making at the time. We've expanded into other breads."
A vegan avocado toast is their most popular item. "We put an entire avocado sliced and fanned out over the two slices of [wheat] bread. Then we make an herb vinaigrette and an herb and olive oil puree. So, it's nice and bright and green. Then a little bit of dressed arugula and chia seeds.
"Every recipe is four or five ingredients, and every plate has four or five things on it. Nothing is so complicated that it's difficult to understand or unfamiliar."
Their shrimp and grits recipe is simple. Instead of "a sauce that's made of Worcestershire hot sauce, all these tons of ingredients," their sauce "starts off with charred tomatoes" and also includes garlic, onion, shrimp, and "a handful of spices."
Their chocolate pot de creme dessert is made of dark chocolate, whiskey, whipped cream, and fresh berries.
Edge Alley isn't the end of the line for Barker. "I think we have a lot of opportunity in 2019 to do other stuff in the neighborhood."
He's not ready to talk about it, but Barker says, "We're working on another concept for the neighborhood."